Bhi Bhiman, SF's Most Exciting New Songwriter, Talks American Idol And The Perils Of Being The Sri Lankan Woody Guthrie (VIDEOS)
Who: Bhi Bhiman (Yes, that's his real name)
Current Gig: San Francisco-based singer-songwriter whose new album, appropriately titled Bhiman, is poised to be music's next big thing with rave reviews from the New York Times, NPR and the Washington Post. Bhiman's performing at his new album's release party on February 18th at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill.
Years in SF: 7
What's your first San Francisco memory?
I have a bad memory but I probably did typical touristy things. Although my memories are somehow mixed with fake memories from listening to records by SF bands and old Fillmore concerts--like this Santana concert from 1968 at the Fillmore right before he blew up. How's that for a terrible answer?
Favorite San Francisco meal?
Little Chihuahua's burritos are pretty good, but I'd have to go with the soft tofu soup from Manna.
When you listen back to your own music, are there other artists whose influences you hear in your work?
There are lot of quiet, sensitive singer-songwriters, but then I also have this side where I just want to go out and blow people away in a very Richie Havens sort of way.
In terms of influences, you have people that you wouldn't mind sounding like, but there's so many other influences going on underneath that you usually make a turn somewhere and that's how you create your own voice. Sometimes you find that you sound like someone you don't really like.
I don't want to alienate anybody, but Joni Mitchell can kind of rub me the wrong way. I think she's an incredibly talented artist, but there are couple songs she has that really drive me nuts. There are some things about what I do that are similar to her style and I have to catch myself and realize I'm being just like the person I clown on all the time.
The first thing most people notice when they listen to one of your songs is your voice. Is that vibrato-filled singing style just what happened when you opened your mouth, or was it something you cultivated?
I was always a good mimic of accents and voices. Being a comedian was the first thing I tried to do before I started singing. But, I never thought I had a voice of my own, really. At some point I realized it was corny to be singing in fake voices and I didn't want to turn into a straight impressionist like [comedian] Frank Caliendo--someone with a lot of talent but no soul. That's how I felt when was singing Led Zeppelin and just kind of copying what I heard.
Mainly I like to sing a good song instead of just singing nothing. That's the reason I'd never go on American Idol. I'd never just want to go sing some crap that someone tells me to sing that I don't feel. I can't make anything sound good, I have to believe it first.
Do you consider your songs overtly political?
I'm not a super political person. I don't feel like I can change the world with my music. I do feel like I'm up to date on political news and I put that in my songs. I wouldn't put any more importance on my political opinions than someone who put out a Broadway play and put in some jabs about a politician. I would ask you to count me as political as that person is and no more. There's more to the play than that. There's more to the story than that. It's important but I don't put an emphasis on it.
A lot of your songs are, in a Randy Newman-esque way, either stories or character-based where you're jumping into somebody else's body and singing in their voice. How do those songs come about?
I think he's one of the biggest influences on me in terms of that very idea of being in another person's shoes, singing them as the asshole, which it think he finds fascinating and I do too. There's a lot of material you can do from that vantage point and have a lot of fun with, but there's a degree of seriousness to a lot of those viewpoint songs.
One of those that was huge was "Rednecks." That's like an extreme viewpoint, that's going really far, but I love that song. That was a real eye-opener for me, being a teenager, hearing that and going, "Whoa, he's not being that guy, he's making fun of that guy." But in order to land certain lines, to get a specific message across, he needs to be speaking as that guy.
Do you often see portions of yourself in the characters you create?
I think all my songs have something of myself in it. Even if I'm taking the role of a jerk, like on my last album I took the part of an executive stealing people pension money, there's a certain lightheartedness to it that the real Enron executives probably wouldn't have. It's turning something awful over and exposing something kind of funny on the other side.
One of the issues that always seems to come up in your press accounts is race. There's a lot of talk of your background and ethnicity, but when you write in your songs about race it's you doing something racialized from a character's perspective--usually from a different race than yours. Why is that?
I don't think I'm every really working out anything of my own. If I write about racial things, it's usually about something in the news that people are talking about or not talking about--inequality, restlessness or things like that. I'm definitely starting to get labeled as "The Sri Lankan Woody Guthrie."
What do you think of that?
It's weird. I mean, it's a good PR move even though it's also kind of annoying. I don't really feel like the Sri Lankan Woody Guthrie. It's been a controversy in certain articles I've read but it's also memorable and that's always good, be it negative or positive because it sticks in somebody's brain.
Check out this slideshow of Bhiman's music: